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The Designer Vagina

Empirical qualitative research demonstrates that the subjective experience of women’s body’s failure to conform to beauty norms causes an affective pattern in the subject – self-consciousness, shame, guilt, distress – that can cement the female subject’s dependency on the body-as-self, and hence their docility34. Moreover, recent sociological research in the Australian context suggests that the social status of the Brazilian wax is evolving. At the high end of the age scale for one study’s’ sample, a twenty-seven-year-old woman ‘recounted her perception of early sexual partners not having expectations in relation to genital grooming’35, but at the low end an 18-year-old female participant stated that ‘in her social group it was essential that something be done to fashion female pubic hair’36. Alexandra James (2014) posits that the designer vagina emerged in 1980s pornography. But her findings suggest that there has been a ‘perceived generational shift during the last eight to ten years’37. This shift is such that ‘neglecting to depilate is not to be taken lightly…a woman risks not only her position in a social group, but her identity as a sexually attractive female’38. This recent shift suggests that the ‘designer vagina’ has become a norm for female embodiment. In her classic feminist text, The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer wrote:


If [women] do not feel sufficient revulsion for their body hair themselves, others will direct them to depilate themselves. In extreme cases, women shave or pluck their pubic area, so as to seem more sexless and infantile39.


But where Greer, writing in 1970, could call the depilation of the pubic area an ‘extreme case’, the norm appears to have shifted, or is shifting. What was an extreme has become the norm, at least for younger generations of women40. James’s research suggests that this designer vagina is now the minimum standard for young heterosexual couples:


According to Jillian, 26, should women fail to depilate, they may ‘not get the sex they want’. Clarissa, 27, agreed, saying that men may have a change of heart in their decision to sexually engage with a woman upon discovering she is not groomed in the acceptable way41.


James’ research suggests that two forces work in a cluster to enforce the image of the designer vagina as a norm. Firstly, a force exerts itself on younger women through pornography, though in a circuitous way – the standard of the waxed, ‘perfect’ vulva is ‘conveyed to women via their male sexual partner’42. Secondly, a force exerts itself through the rise in advertising for vaginal grooming, which, ironically, young women understand as a newfound freedom with regards to sex. That the designer vagina is perceived as the standard is exacerbated by a lack of alternative representations other than those that flow from these two streams.

The Designer Vagina and Commodity Fetishism


The designer vagina is usefully analysable in Marxist terms: commodity fetishism. Ghassan Hage has summarized this concept usefully:


In this analysis, Marx aims to show how certain social products that appear on the capitalist marker ‘detach’ themselves, so to speak, from the social relations that produce them, and are experienced as having powers of their own43.


As is the case with tribal totems, what is manmade (i.e. the commodity) can be thought to have powers over human beings that supersede the object’s manmade status. Certainly, whether in the consumption of pornography or a female partner’s body, the ‘product’ – i.e. the depilated vagina – is ‘detached’ from the painful labour of depilation. Likewise, the network of socio-sexual relations in which the designer vagina is produced is obscured in consumption. In classical Marxism, commodity fetishism normalized the exploitation of labour in hierarchical class relations. In the context of sex/gender relations, it is part of the ‘miracle’ or ‘magic’ of the designer vagina that the (female) pain of waxing is transmuted into the pleasure of male sex: the sexual pleasure in consumption of the designer vagina is made possible through a fetishized forgetting of the pain of being waxed. Perhaps the most startlingly ‘magic’ aspects of this fetishism are the transmutation of the female anatomy itself: through vaginal grooming the designer vagina becomes not a body altered from the physical norm (‘manmade’), but rather it becomes the norm itself – the picture of the standardised female body, an inexorable rite of ‘full’ female embodiment.


Returning to the topic again in 1999, Greer had the occasion to update her assessment of the fate of depilation:


Women with ‘too much’ (i.e. any) body hair are expected to struggle daily with depilatories of all kinds in order to appear hairless. Bleaching moustaches, waxing legs, and plucking eyebrows absorb hundreds of woman-hours. A woman who disported herself in a bikini out of which a bush of pubic hair sprouted would be regarded as a walking obscenity. No one would say that the woman who puts herself through the agonizing ordeal of hot waxing her bikini line must be suffering from Body Dysmorphic Disorder44.


De-fetishizing the Designer Vagina: Counter-text to Brazilian Wax


By ‘publicizing’ the painful, humiliating labour of vaginal waxing before the gaze of the lens, my video work Brazilian Wax attempts to ‘de-fetishize’ the designer vagina. The viewer cannot take pleasure in disembodied parts of the female anatomy. The work also denaturalises the designer vagina by demonstrating that it is contingent on arbitrary social practices – the painful labour of the wax, and the ‘womanhours’ absorbed in transformations of the body to obey new norms. It is my hope that Brazilian Wax highlights the hierarchical socio-sexual relations in which that female grooming practice becomes sexualized.